Words Come Between



I have a friend who chooses to stay at home in spite of the fact that all of her children are now in elementary school. She was a professional prior to having a family, but following the birth of her second-to-last child, she no longer feels called to work outside the home. She chooses instead to fill her days with a variety of volunteer work, errands and household management.


As I live a very different life than she does, I will admit that I have sometimes wondered quietly to myself, “What does she do with all that time on her hands?” And at times, I have wished for the ability to switch places with her, as her life appears to me to be so uncomplicated, minus office work and professional concerns. But I have never verbalized these thoughts, and after witnessing a recent exchange between her and another friend of ours, I’m so glad that I kept my questions and envying to myself.

The other day, we were both attending our children’s after-school soccer game when a mutual friend of ours came up to her and asked her what life was like in “that big house without all the children all around.” And, just to add insult to injury, she tacked on the end, “Are you bored?”

My friend prickled a bit under the direct inquiry, and even though the question was asked in a light-hearted, fun way, I could tell that she felt she was being scrutinized and critiqued for her very personal decision to stay at home with or without young children in the house.  Her response was also blithe, with just a bit of edge to her tone: “Maybe you should spend the day with me sometime and follow me around.” She then asserted that she was anything but bored with her very personal choice to stay at home.

The interchange between the two friends challenged me to think not about how I verbalize my opinions and how I form judgments about other people’s lives. It also made me think about the ways that such comments could be considered a form of aggressive behavior.

For all our understanding of social graces, political correctness, manners and etiquette, women have a long way to go in understanding the role that passive-aggression plays in damaging self-confidence and undermining self-esteem. Often passive-aggression in friendships arises when we make note of, in casual offhand ways, the differences between ourselves and others with the intent to subtly criticize that other person. This form of aggression drives a wedge between women who are otherwise good friends and who could be emotionally closer without the presence of the cutting remarks in their relationship.

I remember years ago trying to give a friend advice about potty training her three-year old son, all the while thinking that my personal examples of how easy it was for me would help motivate her to get her little guy trained. I guess my lack of understanding came through loud and clear in our conversations. Years later, she told me how hurt she had been by my superiority complex and that my advice had not been what she was looking for at that particular time. All she had wanted was caring, supportive friendship; a friend that listened more than she talked. Point well taken.

I think there are ways that we can avoid the trap of reverting to passive-aggressive comments. For starters, I put myself in the other person’s shoes. Until I understand the other person and have “walked a mile in their shoes,” I really cannot pass judgment on why they do what they do. No matter how close I feel to a friend, she has reasons for her behavior about which even the closest of friends may not always have prior knowledge.

When in doubt, don’t. That’s good practical advice for anything in life. When in doubt about your motives, don’t. When in doubt about your wording, don’t. When in doubt about how it might be received, don’t. And let heartfelt understanding be your guide to all questions and judgment calls you make.
QUESTION: Have you been on the receiving end of passive aggressive comments? How did it make you feel?  Have you ever knowingly made a passive aggressive comment to a friend?

CHALLENGE: If you are tempted to pass judgment on another mom, stop yourself, and try to understand her rather than criticize her. Evaluate whether a more compassionate response leads to a stronger relationship.


  1. Claire says

    I definitely relate to this. I currently work part-time (15 hours/week), and people usually assume that I will resume fulltime work once my son is in school fulltime. But fulltime school accounts for a lot less hours than fulltime work, so I really have no plans to increase my working hours beyond 20/week. And I’m sure I won’t be bored, but I do look forward to a less hectic pace than I would have if I worked fulltime. The flip side of this issue, however, is that sometimes comments really are made innocently, and people wrongly assume a passive-aggressive intent.

  2. rebecca@knell.org says

    Thank you for this article! I wish that we as women could get over this need to compare ourselves to others. There are only two possible results: we feel like we need to show everyone else that we’re better, or we feel lousy about ourselves. Or sometimes both. Nothing worthwhile can come of it. But I truly struggle to break this habit!

  3. says

    Thank you all for sharing your thoughts on this relevant issue in relation to many of our everyday lives and the relationships we hold with each other. All the best to you all in forging healthy relationships with other parents in your circle of friends!

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